A taniwha, a supernatural creature in Māori culture similar to a serpent or dragon, led Timoti Moran to his craft as a pounamu carver.

A descendant of many iwi Māori across Aotearoa New Zealand, Moran grew up in Uawa Tologa Bay on the North Island’s east coast before moving to Whakatū Nelson in 1988. He’s worked across a wide range of tactile industries, from plumbing to roofing and even sewing men’s suits and jackets – but Moran still clearly remembers the dream that inspired his current craft.

“The taniwha dragged me to the river and the beach where we always swim,” he says of his dream. Following several lengthy conversations with his family about the vision, Moran felt something wasn’t right. So, he and his wife, Morganne, bundled up the kids and drove to the river.

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Moran says he walked to the spot the taniwha dragged him. Sitting there on the edge of the beach was an 80-kilogram inanga – a pale, grey-green pounamu. The native greenstone, found primarily in the rivers of the South Island, plays a vital role in Māori culture as a taonga (treasure). Then he heard his wife scream. “Lying there facing the pounamu was a toki or adze [a ceremonial axe head, symbolising chieftainship],” says Moran. “It was about 600 to 800 years old.”

This experience moved Moran onto a different path. Drawing on his experience as a multidisciplinary tradesman, he taught himself how to carve pounamu. After a year building his skills, he went full-time and has since continued to carve taonga pounamu objects and jewellery under the business name Taonga by Timoti.

The crafting process
When crafting a taonga for a new client, Moran first meets and connects with them, inviting them to share their life stories. Then he looks for the right stone to work with. “It’s about finding a stone that tells the person’s story,” he says. “I usually wait until I find the stone, and once I’ve cut it, I can pick it for that commission.” This process can take years. But according to Moran, “When you find the stone, it makes the whole commission come alive.”

This connection to nature is deepened in Whakatū Nelson’s verdant surrounds, which include ocean beaches, a ski field, scenic walks and swimmable rivers. Living here means being in constant dialogue with the very forces that shape Moran’s work. “We have a stone in our river that is a billion years old,” says Moran. “It’s the oldest basalt in the southern hemisphere, and we get to swim and play with it.” Another favourite spot for Moran and his family is Moturoa Rabbit Island, a reserve that sits across the water facing Whakatū Nelson and includes a 13-kilometre stretch of pristine beach. “In front of you is the sea, the maunga [mountain] of Nelson, and the maunga of Golden Bay,” says Moran. “Sea, land and maunga encompass you. It feels safe.”

Eating and drinking in Whakatū Nelson
After an afternoon of swimming at Moturoa Rabbit Island, Moran and family like to head to Mapua Wharf, a hub of shops and eateries housed in restored old coolstore buildings on the water. The family-friendly location features a wharf kids can jump off and a grassy area where you can eat fish and chips Artist-run kiosks here sell wares from carving and ceramics to paintings and sculptures.. On Iwa Street, carver and tā moko [traditional tattooing] artist Gordon Toi can be found in his art studio, House of Natives.

Roomy Mapua Wharf brewery, Golden Bear is Moran’s pick for a local ale. “They make their own beer and it’s on the wharf,” says Moran. “People are friendly [and there are] beautiful views.” For special occasions, Moran recommends Thai restaurant Nahm in Stepneyville. Situated at the top of a yacht club, the restaurant looks out across Haulashore Island. If your timing’s right, you can spot a lighthouse in the purple dusk sky.

Even with all the hospitality attractions to experience in Whakatū Nelson, Moran always returns to the region’s natural lures – for both his professional and his personal journey. Chief among them is Roding River in the Aniseed Valley, a 30-minute drive into the hinterland overlooking the town. The place holds special meaning for the family – it’s where Moran met his wife – and it’s also a reminder of the inspiration behind his craft.

“When you look at the water in winter, it looks an ice-cold blue, as though it’s coming from the maunga,” says Moran. “If you pick it up in a cup, it’s clear and see-through. In summer, it’s a deeper emerald-green colour.” The colour of pounamu itself.